Wednesday, 27 February 2013


          The other day the Muser was asked by an ancient Hamiltonian what had become of the two handsome chandeliers that graced the old assembly hall of the Mechanics’ institute. A few years ago the same question was asked, and we answered it as best as we could. It might be interesting to the present generation of native Hamiltonians if we briefly tell the story of the old institute and what it stood for when Hamilton was in what might be called its swaddling clothes. In the early days of the last century nearly every city, town and village in Upper Canada had its mechanics’ institute, with its reading room and library. They were originally organized as a sort of club, where those who did not wish to spend their evenings in the village tavern, met to talk over current affairs and discuss subjects of interest to the community. The leading weekly papers in the province were subscribed for, and their contents thoroughly discussed. Usually one of the members would read the articles in the papers and a general discussion would follow. Mind you, these old fellows who lived in the early part of the last century had pretty strong views on political questions, and many a warm time they had in the debates that followed. The Spectator, the Gazette, and the Journal and Express furnished the political ammunition for the Tories and the Reformers in this section, while around Toronto, the Globe (better known in those days as the Scotchman’s Bible), and three or four other papers in that section did service for their political followers. The two most radical editors, the one in Hamilton and the other in Toronto, were Robert Smiley, of the Spectator, and George Brown, of the Globe, and when they entered the ring on some of the leading questions of the day, bless me how the intellectual fur would fly! Neither of these doughty knights of the tripod ever used common ink to express their thoughts, but dipped their goose quills in gall, hewed to the line and let the chips fall where they would. It is doubtful if Robert Smiley or George Brown ever had a decent sleep at nights, for their active minds were ever on the alert thinking out the meanest  things they could say of each other. And they had their champions in every village institute in the province. In the course of time libraries were added to the reading rooms, and as the subscribers spent much of their time reading in the evenings, discussions became milder, and finally were relegated to the village tavern. Times have changed in the past fifty years, and we hear no more of mechanics’ institutes, reading rooms or lyceum lectures. Instead, we have magnificent buildings in the larger towns for public libraries with fine reading rooms, but very few readers of the younger and middle class. Are the Carnegie buildings too fine to attract the common herd? The result is that the boys spend their evenings in the poolrooms or in loitering around street corners, and the girls – well, let us say, playing bridge whist. A return of some of the ancient custom might not be amiss.



          To get back to the query of the ancient Hamiltonian. When the Great Western railway was being constructed, and Hamilton was decided upon as the headquarters for the official and mechanical departments of the company, some of the enterprising men of the city – and Hamilton had a goodly number of that class in those days – decided that one of the great needs would be a mechanics’ institute and a reading room for the intellectual training of the grand army of young men and old men who would be employed in the railroad shops and in the factories that would be sure to follow the opening of the great thoroughfare through western Canada. Land was cheap on James street, the mountain was one mass of the finest building stone materials and labor was to be had at almost any price, and there was a small army of Scotch stone cutters and masons ready to undertake the construction of such a building as the ancient local architects had designed. There was not much money in circulation, but each one gave in proportion to his means and the result was the handsome stone building that was the pride of Hamilton was erected., with an assembly room, a convention hall and a lyceum for lectures. Hamilton has nothing to equal it today for general purposes. “Oh! for the touch of a vanished hand.” What a translation from the old town hall, over the market house, to the elegant mechanics’ institute assembly room!
          And here is where the finishing touches came in. In those days, the finishing merchants of Hamilton imported their stocks of goods from the old country, and in the fall of the year when the first world’s fair was held in the Crystal palace in London, a number of them happened to meet at the fair. In the glassware department, our Hamilton merchants were attracted to the elegant display of chandeliers, and they with one accord decided that a couple of them were just what was needed to complete the interior of the mechanics’ institute hall away back in Canada. It was many years since this aged muser saw those chandeliers when they were first suspended in the hall, and memory will not help us out to give a description of them. They were the creation of artists in glass, with their hundreds of prisms of cut crystals, fashioned into the most beautiful forms. When lighted up at night, the prisms sparkled and flashed in all the colors of the rainbow. But what is the use of an old printer trying to describe a dream of those ancient workers in glass? The result was that the Hamilton merchants bought two of those masterpieces and had them forwarded home at once, so that they would be in Hamilton by the time they should return. They gave no thought as to whether the trustees would approve of the purchase and take the chandeliers. If the trustees did not approve of the purchase, why the chandeliers were paid for anyway, and the merchants would present them to the institute. That is the kind of public spirit that existed in Hamilton fifty and sixty years ago. The people were not rich, but they were enterprising. When George James started his dry goods store in the Lister block, the institute chandeliers suggested the idea to him of fitting up the front with glass and calling it “The Crystal Palace.” If we mistake not, George James was one of the men who took part in buying those chandeliers at the world’s fair.


                             PRIDE GOES BEFORE A FALL

          Hamilton was proud of its’ mechanics’ institute, and no stranger ever visited the old town that was not taken to the library and the reading room, and then given a peep at the two crystal chandeliers, with their hundreds of sparkling prisms. It was a local pride before a fall. For several years the institute prospered, and its reading rooms were crowded every night with young and old students who were building for themselves intellectual characters. It educated the young as an army of debater, and the older men had studies in the mechanic arts that made them more valuable in the workshops. There was no technical school in Hamilton then, where practical lessons were taught in mechanics. The great railway that was built by Hamilton enterprise was the foundation on which the future was built, but it failed in the end to return to the people who dreamed of it for years and who labored for its success, the gratitude that was their due. Bit by bit, the Great Western managers began to move the shops to other towns, till, by and by, the army of men that used to go up and down Stuart street from the shops to their homes, were lost to sight, and the silent workshops became a ghost walk. With the closing of the shops came the doom of the mechanics’ institute, and the dust of the graveyard blotted out the life that made the reading room and the library one of the brightest places in the old town. Joseph Kneeshaw and a few others tried to inject new life into it, but no use. The time finally came when the building that had been the pride of Hamilton was sold to pay the accumulated interest on the mortgage for money borrowed to pay current expenses, and the splendid library that had been selected with such great care, and the furniture, and the two chandeliers of which there was nothing like them in Canada, all went out with the mournful cry of dear old Tommy Burrows, "Going! Going! Gone!” And tears welled up from the heart of the loving heart of the Irish auctioneer as he “knocked down” the chandeliers with their hundreds of sparkling prisms, and the lights had gone out forever from the Mechanics’ institute that had been the pride of Hamilton.
          What became of the chandeliers? They were bought for a mere song by a few of the members of the members of St. Thomas’ church, and after shedding light upon the congregation for a few years, were cast aside. If anyone can tell of their future, the columns of the Spectator are at their disposal.

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